Silent Memory

“…the CIA and its proxies had managed to convince one of Latin America’s most popular leaders to resign.”

The watch officer at the Guatemalan disaster management agency (CONRED) scribbled furiously as she took the call. With every word her eyes grew wider and her hand began to shake, marring her handwriting and drawing the attention of her colleagues. Turning toward the televisions on the wall, the staff manning the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) began to take in the chilling initial reports from Escuintla Department. The Volcan de Fuego – Volcano of Fire – had just exploded, sending searing clouds of gas and ash toward the villages of La Trinidad and El Rodeo at the speed of a race car. There would be casualties.

As if on cue, all the phones in the EOC started to ring, drowning out the audio from the Noticero 24 newscast and breaking the trance of the TVs. For a few minutes all that remained was the tense chatter of the EOC at work until the screens carried the first horrifying images from Escuintla. The grim photos taken by a survivor stunned the room into a momentary heartbroken silence; the paralysis of men and women experiencing – for the first time in their lives – their worst fears unfold before their eyes. With a stern word from a leader and tears on their cheeks, they galvanized themselves for the struggle against the still erupting volcano. It was April 19th, 2018.

Meanwhile, in a hotel across town, their colleagues from CONRED shared a high-five…The eruption, the phone calls, even the newscast, were simulated.

CONRED Guatemala newscast FAHUM
A simulated newscast produced for the exercise. A tremendous amount of effort went into making the scenarios realistic for the training audience. The anchorwoman is actually a CONRED employee and the photo in the background was taken in El Rodeo during the exercise.

Exercise Land

One cannot overstate how important the exercise was for the people of El Rodeo and La Trinidad when the real Volcan de Fuego exploded on June 3rd, 2018, exactly five weeks after CONRED rehearsed it. In the dramatic first hours after the eruption began it became clear the exercise scenario was playing out in real life. We had not only used Fuego as our “enemy,” the training audience had actually responded to the exact villages, roads, and terrain later impacted by the real disaster. The exact landing zones where I had directed US Military helicopters during the April exercise, were the same bits of ground used by CONRED in June. Their response to the real eruption, though imperfect, was absolutely – and unsurprisingly – brilliant. The staff knew instantly which local and departmental officials to call, which military units would be involved, what commodities were in CONRED warehouses, the maintenance status of their vehicles, and where to place the shelters. They had a lock on the capability of available volunteers and what supplies would be useful on the ground. The April exercise was without doubt, the most effective disaster response rehearsal imaginable.

Though Guatemala’s institutions are relatively new and not strong by western standards, CONRED stands out as an example of the country’s potential and the effectiveness of US foreign aid programs. CONRED has been a recipient of US disaster risk reduction programming since Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America in 1998. Twenty years on, Guatemala is now an exporter of disaster response expertise throughout the region. CONRED’s people are well-selected, well-trained, and well-equipped. Their counterparts from across Latin America invite them to share their expertise in conferences and academic settings as well as in the field. CONRED responded to the Mexico Earthquake in February 2018 and will help train their colleagues in the Dominican Republic during a similar exercise in May 2019. The excellence of CONRED represents the potential of Guatemala to develop itself though it is not just American aid that matters. The country still writhes under the toxic memory of one of modern history’s most barbaric civil wars; a war instigated by Washington at a time when the threat of Communism was our number one security concern. American intervention it seems, matters also.

Unconventional Warfare

The blood-letting began in 1951 when a young, charismatic leader, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, tried to change the system that drove the Guatemalan economy. An Army officer of genteel upbringing, Árbenz’s Marxist tendencies alarmed the United States though Washington was initially content to simply monitor the situation. When Árbenz nationalized Guatemala’s only rail link and a tremendous amount of agricultural land monopolized by the United Fruit Company, a powerful American corporation, United Fruit responded with heavy pressure on Washington to do something about the “leftist Guatemalan President”. When he signed a large arms deal with the Soviet Union later that spring, President Eisenhower finally authorized the CIA to overthrow Árbenz.

The campaign to overthrow Jacobo Árbenz was a study in successful Unconventional Warfare. The CIA’s entire force structure for the counter-revolution consisted of a handful of “rebel” fighter planes based in Tegucigalpa; a company of very ineffective guerillas that stomped around the wilderness on the Honduran border; and a radio station that blasted a constant warning the rebels were coming (they weren’t). Their “air force” were all WWII vintage fighters; a few “F-47N Thunderbolts, a P-38L Lightning, a Cessna 180, and two C-47 transports” that occasionally strafed or dropped small munitions — often by hand — on targets in Guatemala City or Puerto Barrios on the Caribbean coast. The CIA calculated they would not have to kill a lot of people or spend a lot of money to scare Guatemala into supporting Árbenz’s political opponents. Their assessment was correct. After a little more than a month, the CIA and its proxies had managed to convince one of Latin America’s most popular leaders to resign.

What the CIA did not calculate correctly was the level of violence the splendid little non-war would unleash in Guatemala. After a farcical power struggle that lasted a just few days, rebel leader Carlos Castillo Armas consolidated his hold on the government. Dependent upon a fractured group of elites he didn’t trust and fickle support from Washington, Castillo Armas was an insecure leader that ruled through patronage and fear. By 1960, the legacy of the CIA operation was an entrenched pattern of corruption and violence in Guatemalan politics and a leftist insurgency strong enough to openly threaten the government.

The subsequent 36 years of civil war rank among the most brutal in the bloody history of the Western Hemisphere. As it had in neighboring El Salvador, the United States initially backed a series of anti-Communist tyrants but as the killing became too horrific for Washington to acknowledge, the war went underground and the slaughter became less discriminate. Disappearances and mass murder were common. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, were displaced. When peace accords were finally signed in 1996, ending the war and establishing the transition government, some 200,000 Guatemalans — most of them indigenous people of Mayan descent — were dead with countless others raped, maimed, and tortured in unspeakable ways.

CONRED Volcan de Fuego
CONRED and the Guatemalan military coordinated their efforts in the village of El Rodeo to rescue victims of the June 2018 eruption of the Volcan de Fuego.

Memory of Silence

Guatemala has a lot of problems. It is poor and disaster prone. The government is the focus of an international anti-corruption effort, and the country’s geography and relatively weak institutions make it a focal point for international drug violence. Poverty is grinding in the countryside. So much so that thousands of Guatemalans a year attempt the dangerous journey to an illegal life in the United States. As we know all too well, many lose their lives, their health, or their freedom in the process. Despite Guatemala’s strong support for US foreign policy — Guatemala was the first country to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem after the US did so — the President of the United States referred obliquely to Guatemala as a “shithole country” and threatened to cut the very aid intended to stem the tide of drugs and immigrants. Though Guatemala’s poverty and corruption are important concerns for the United States, Guatemalans themselves are dealing with something far more insidious.

Young Guatemalans are at risk of forgetting how the demise of Jacobo Árbenz came about and what it meant for their country. A visit to the National Museum in 2017 convinced me the risk is real. Occupying a poorly designed building in Zone 1 of the capital, the museum is arranged to take visitors on a journey through Guatemalan history beginning with Spanish dominion under the lieutenants of Cortez and ending, I assumed, with the current government or at least the 1996 peace accords. But as I picked through the dusty exhibits one at a time I realized I was running out of museum and had not even yet arrived at the 20th Century. In the final corner of the upper floor, there is an entire room dedicated to Árbenz and his Presidency, but it said little about his downfall and not a word or photo depicting the upheaval that followed. Other than an entire (unlit) corridor dedicated to a local musician of international repute, it was as if Guatemala’s history ended in 1954.

A door in the Árbenz exhibit led to the curator’s office. I could see him at his desk through the grimy windows, seated in defilade behind stacks of dusty volumes, charts, and photographs. Exasperated by the abrupt end of history I boldly knocked on his window and he invited me in. I asked him where I could find information about the Civil War. He grew uncomfortable, though I wasn’t sure if that was due to the sensitivity of the history itself or to the fact that the National Museum had nothing on it. He explained there was no space. Not intending to be contrarian I noted the ground floor was nearly empty. He gave me an embarrassed shrug and speculated that one of the universities might have some Civil War history. Seeing where this was leading I didn’t bother noting the university and continued probing him. With an air of finality he referred me to a small monitor that displayed the URL for the museum website. I found it odd he would refer me to the museum’s own website until I tried the link; it didn’t work. I thanked him and left, pondering the meaning of Guatemala’s amnesia.

This beautiful country has tremendous economic and social potential but Guatemalans have a responsibility to develop their future with clear eyes. In that sense, the dysfunction of the museum is more than just a counterpoint to CONRED’s effectiveness and professionalism. If Guatemalans forget how they came to be where they are, then the brutality of their Civil War is truly a silent memory of history prepared to repeat itself because a silent memory is no memory at all.


NOTE: The term “Memory of Silence” is a reference to the final report of the Commission for Historical Clarification established in 1994 by agreement between the  Government of Guatemala and the main rebel faction, the Revolutionary National Unity of Guatemala (URNG). The report documented in detail, the brutal toll of 36 years of war. It has become famous as a testament to the horror and futility of war in general.

Lino MianiLino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He worked closely with CONRED for two years to develop the US Military aspects of the 2018 exercise mentioned here.

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